Eliminating Toxins in International Electronics Supply Chains

Amber Thomas, MBA '15, MILR '15 interviewed Heather White, who is making a documentary on the health issues faced by Chinese factory workers in the electronics industry.

by Amber Thomas, MBA ’15 & MILR ‘15

Eliminating Toxins in International Electronics Supply Chains

Heather White, President of New Standards and Founder of Verite joined Cornell Johnson’s Emerging Markets Institute and Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise earlier this month to share her current documentary project. Entitled Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics, the documentary explores labor and health concerns in the Pearl River Delta region of China, where many American mobile phones and electronics are manufactured.

The documentary reveals the high incidence of health issues and deaths related to benzene and n-hexane, solvents banned in the US but used in China to clean electronics displays in manufacturing. Ms. White and her colleagues found many permanently disabled workers suffering from related nerve damage, paralysis and cancer in area hospitals. Covered up by manufacturers, rarely recognized under China’s occupational disease diagnosis and unreported by US labor monitors, these illnesses are the result of unsafe manufacturing processes. Many of the affected workers are teenagers who have become a burden on the families they sought to support by migrating to the region for manufacturing work.

Ms. White, with thirty years of experience in China, has in-depth insight into the complexities of this issue and business in the region. In the Pearl River Delta, as in many export zones in emerging economies, there is little will or too few resources to enforce local laws. Working conditions can be harsh and injured workers have limited recourse against employers who can view them as expendable. To mitigate risk, US corporations have enacted third party monitoring which often falls short of revealing significant issues within supply chains. This revelation of health issues contributes to a continued conversation around corporate accountability in international supply chains.

The documentary, in post-production, specifically aims to bring to light this issue and eliminate the use of benzene and n-hexane in electronics supply chains. The trailer has already received over one million views, galvanized NGOs, and prompted a resolve by Apple to prohibit benzene and n-hexane in their final assembly processes. Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics is a call to continued and expanded action by consumers, NGOs and electronics manufacturers around these dangerous solvents. 

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